Batteries pose a particular challenge in the reuse and recycling of electronics. They can be difficult to recover and are often undetected in some electronic equipment. This problem is compounded by the increased use of batteries in an ever-growing list of products and devices. Additionally, different battery and chemistry types require different and specialized processes, further complicating the recycling process.
While a battery recycler may accept all types of batteries, it is not likely that they process all types of batteries. It is common for battery recyclers to send the batteries they can’t process internally to other recyclers. For instance, a lead acid car battery recycler may not process the sealed lead acid batteries (SLA or SLAB) found in electronics. Similarly, a lead acid battery recycler may not process lithium ion or lithium metal batteries in the same facility as lead acid batteries. Be aware that if only one battery recycler is listed in your recycling chain, it could be that your list of downstream vendors is incomplete.
To understand your recycling chain and conduct the proper due diligence on all downstream vendors, you must follow each type of battery and chemistry. The most common battery types found in electronics include Sealed Lead Acid, Nickel Cadmium, Nickel Metal Hydride, Alkaline, Lithium Ion, and Lithium Metal. Each typically requires a different processing technique, which necessitates transferring batteries to a recycler with the right specialty.
Identifying the chemistry of a battery can be difficult and labor intensive – and the wrong chemistry in the wrong process can increase safety risks and turn recoverable materials into hazardous waste. For this reason, battery aggregators that specialize in battery sorting play an important role in the battery recycling chain. The battery aggregators sort the various batteries by chemistry, and then send full loads to the appropriate specialized battery processors for recycling.
It is important to understand that battery aggregators ship to a variety of recyclers, who may in turn, send some batteries to yet another recycler for processing. The recycling chain can change frequently due to changing market demands and contracts. R2 Certified facilities that send batteries to a battery aggregator must be aware of all the downstream vendors throughout the recycling chain that will receive their batteries. Therefore, it is important to fully understand the types and chemistries of batteries you are shipping.
Batteries are often classified as hazardous waste because they can be toxic, caustic, and/or combustible. For this reason, special packaging and handling is often required for shipping. In addition, these hazards cause most countries to regulate the import/export of batteries. Provision 3 of the R2 Standard requires that the legality of transboundary movements is verified and documented prior to each shipment made by an R2 certified company, or its downstream brokers or vendors. This also holds true for transboundary shipments of non-working or untested equipment or components that contain batteries. The presence of batteries in untested or non-functioning electronics can change non-hazardous waste imports/exports into hazardous waste imports/exports that are regulated.
Bottom Line: Battery recycling is complex. R2 certified recyclers are responsible for understanding how each type of battery will be processed by the various downstream vendors in the recycling chain. They are also responsible for verifying the legality of any import or export of batteries made directly by them, or by their downstream vendors.
To learn more about the challenges lithium batteries pose to the recycling industry, consider registering for the EPA's upcoming webinar on this topic. CLICK HERE for more details.